Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945
Octavio Paz (pahz) was born in Mexico City, Mexico, on March 31, 1914, the son of Octavio Paz, a mestizo, and Josephina Lozano, a woman of Spanish descent. His father, a lawyer and journalist who defended the peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and helped implement agrarian reform in Mexico after the revolution, made Paz aware of social justice issues. Paz grew up in his grandfather’s house in the small village of Mixoac. His grandfather, a popular novelist, introduced Paz to literature. Paz also lived and attended school in the United States for almost two years while his father was in political exile during the Mexican Revolution.
Paz began his literary career in his late teens, publishing his first book of poems, Luna silvestre, in 1933. He reacted against the fierce nationalism dominant in Mexican culture after the revolution and allied himself with Mexican poets interested in world literature. Nonetheless, he was very concerned about Mexico’s identity and future in the revolution’s aftermath. In 1937, Paz went to Yucatán to work in a rural school, leaving behind his university studies. He did not want to be a doctor or lawyer as his family desired. He wanted to be a poet whose poetry would help to change the world.
In 1937, Paz also went to Spain in support of the Spanish Republic. After trying unsuccessfully to enlist as a soldier to fight in Spain’s civil war, he defended the Spanish Republic with his poetry. He met many poets in Spain: Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Antonio Machado, and Stephen Spender, among others.
Paz returned to Mexico in 1938, determined to further the cause of the Spanish Republic through Taller (1938-1941), a literary magazine that he edited. With the Spanish Republic’s defeat, a disillusioned Paz realized that political action could not save the world from evil. He turned to poetry as a means for changing the world for the better, believing that poetry opposes evil by creating an alternative reality with language.
In 1943, Paz left Mexico to travel extensively for two years in the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship. He entered the Mexican diplomatic service in 1945 and was stationed in Paris from 1946 to 1951. While in Paris, he became friends with André Breton, the founder of Surrealism. Paz was attracted to Surrealism because it maintains that poetry is a moral force capable of subverting the established social and political order. Paz saw poetry as a vehicle for the cultivation of inner values, such as love, imagination, and fantasy. In the aftermath of World War II, Paz believed that it was imperative that poetry defend the human spirit in the face of the isolation and alienation characteristic of modern industrial society.
Paz firmly established himself as a major literary figure in the 1950’s. He returned to Mexico in 1953, after an absence of almost eleven years. Paz’s meditations on Mexican identity and psychology resulted in his much acclaimed study of Mexican culture, El laberinto de la soledad: Vida y pensamiento de México (1950; The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961). In 1956, he published El arco y la lira (The Bow and the Lyre, 1971), a defense of poetry as a force for social change. In his book-length poem Piedra de sol (1957; Sun Stone, 1963), Paz uses the Aztec calendar and its circular conception of time to express the poetic quest for freedom and communion through lovemaking.
During his life, Paz personally experienced love in three relationships; the third one lasted for the rest of his life. In 1938, he married the Mexican writer Elena Garro, with whom he had a daughter. They divorced in 1959. That same year he went to Paris with his lover Bona Tibertelli de Pisis, an Italian painter. In 1965, the relationship ended and he married Marie-José Tramini, a French woman with whom he spent the rest of his life.
Paz served as Mexican ambassador to India from 1962 to 1968. His contact with Oriental cultures and thought made him more conscious of the role of silence and empty space in poetic composition. In Salamandra (1962), the spacing of the words on the page is as important as the words themselves. In the long poem Blanco (1967; English translation, 1971), the layout and the use of different typefaces allow for several alternative readings of the poetic text.
Paz resigned from his position as ambassador to India in October, 1968, when the Mexican government killed more than three hundred student demonstrators in Mexico City. In 1968, Paz began to devote himself to teaching and lecturing abroad, mainly in the United States. He edited and published Plural, a magazine dedicated to art and politics, from 1971 until 1976. He became the editor of the literary magazine Vuelta in 1976. His many honors and prizes include the Jerusalem Prize in 1977, the Cervantes Prize, the most important award in the Spanish-speaking world, in 1981, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1982. In 1990, Paz received the Nobel Prize in Literature; he was the first Mexican to be so honored.
Through the early 1990’s, Paz wrote extensively about politics and culture in Latin America. A maverick championing freedom and democracy, he criticized both capitalism and communism for exploiting human beings for the sake of economic goals. He incurred the wrath of many Latin American intellectuals for his criticism of leftist revolutionary movements in Latin America. Insisting that he had no political affiliations, Paz continued to view poetry as a vehicle through which people can resist all ideologies that alienate and dehumanize them. As the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, Paz was considered to be not only one of the greatest poets ever in the Spanish-speaking world but also the most prominent intellectual in Latin America. He died in Mexico City on April 19, 1998.